The Clifford Odets play “The Big Knife” had not been revived in 60 years.
It’s certainly not because people have lost their fascination with Hollywood, or that studio bosses are suddenly beacons of ethics or movie stars live beyond reproach. (Though vehicular homicide while drunk does stretch the definition of reproach).
Nope, it likely has not been revived because it is dull — painfully, completely dull.
Bobby Cannavale, as always, is very good, especially when losing in it, with veins taut in his neck, face red and muscles tense. He recently proved it in Broadway’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” as well as on “Nurse Jackie.” Richard Kind (Broadway’s “The Producers,” TV’s “Luck”), who gives off such a nice guy vibe, is great as heartless, disingenuous studio head Marcus Hoff.
Yet people were audibly snoring at Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “The Big Knife” at American Airlines Theatre. That’s inexcusable, but understandable. It’s the sort of play that actors may love and has some great lines, but never fully gels.
There are jumps in logic and people become extremely angry, but it’s not completely clear why. Just as journalists seem to love “Lucky Guy” more than people in other lines of work because it’s about a newspaper reporter, it could be that actors like this because it’s about the movie business. Cannavale plays Charlie Castle, a huge movie star and a war hero.
Charlie is disaffected and claims he wants to leave this life, but Hoff is not inclined to let his moneymaker go. Charlie seems pretty easily persuaded, but his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland, Broadway’s “Reasons to be Pretty,” TV’s “Homeland”), wants him to leave.
They’re separated and both have extramarital interests, which is a good idea because they have negative chemistry together.
Much of the angst stems from some time back, when Charlie fatally hit a kid with his car.
He drinks a lot, which could be to forget his crime, but his conscience has not kicked in enough to make him turn himself in and give up his mansion or millions. Complicating matters is the fact he had a starlet with him at the time of the accident.
Marion also has a tendency to drink too much and she talks even more. Worse, she does not seem to understand the concept of being paid off. Charlie’s agent, Hoff and his henchman all try to deal with the situation. Marion storms in and out as the butler (Billy Eugene Jones, “The Mountaintop”) carries around drinks and is the most logical person on stage.
Fortune cookie aphorisms are tossed about: “Never underestimate a man because you don’t like him.”
People enter and exit, yell a lot and get very worked up. Charlie, in particular, screams a lot and drinks too much, but who could blame him? By the end, I wanted to scream a lot and drink, too.